Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is one of the the best-known horror shows in the United States. We journeyed down to Orlando, Florida to see this year's collection of nightmares, and talk to the designers who build some of the most elaborate horror attractions ever made.
Full disclosure: Universal Orlando flew me to Orlando and put me up in one of their resorts for this tour and movie screening.
Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) started in Universal's Orlando theme park in 1991 as an experimental way to boost sagging autumn attendance. That first three-night event was such a success they had to stop letting people in, since the limited number of attractions would have been overwhelmed. The event has continually expanded from there, moving to a full week and eventually to almost an entire month of scares (this year it runs from Sept. 19 through Nov. 1, but not every single night).
The exact nature of HHN evolves from year to year – that's one of the reasons people keep coming back. From purely original themed areas and mazes, most of them based on general horror themes (vampires, serial killers, etc.), Universal eventually developed their own signature character, an evil clown named Jack. Jack's been on hiatus for a few years, partly because HHN has started using licensed characters and movie properties. This year's event included houses or areas based on The Walking Dead, The Purge, Aliens vs. Predator, Dracula Untold, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, along with John Carpenter's original Halloween movie and SyFy's makeup/FX reality show Face Off. Their original creations included a mega creepy doll house, a cannibal colony, a factory for psycho clowns, a spooky bayou, and a dark masquerade.
How does HHN work? The Universal Studios part of the park is emptied around dinner time, then is transitioned over to the horror theme in an hour before being reopened (it takes six to eight hours to reset for the next morning). Some parts of the park become open scare zones, with "scareactors" in costume prowling around and sneaking up on guests. The dark masquerade was my favorite area of this type, with performers in fancy ballroom outfits and masquerade masks, many of them on stilts. A closer look revealed the masks hid bloody, torn faces and gruesome disfigurements.
The entire New York City backlot area of the park was converted to The Purge: Anarchy. You can argue the relative merits of the Purge movies themselves, but conceptually it makes for a terrifying scene to walk through, with TVs and audio announcers broadcasting the Purge announcements, sirens blaring, and the sounds of gunfire echoing from the buildings. Performers ran through the dense crowd wielding chainsaws and other weaponry, and at times someone interacted with the crowd, directing the performers to go after certain people in the audience. Here's a quick Purge photo I snapped with my phone.
There's also a ribald Bill & Ted stage show that features attractive performers dancing, stripping (PG-13 though), and packing 20 minutes with pop culture gags that were funny at times, mostly when they were being directly antagonistic toward Disney and the hyper-saccharine nature of most family Florida vacations. There's a bit with a puppet Smaug that's downright brilliant, and only one part that really felt uncomfortable (a fat-shaming segment featuring Elsa singing, "Do You Want to Eat a Sno-Cone?").
The big attractions, though, are the haunted houses. It's really more accurate to call these "horror mazes." A few of them are repurposed attractions, some are on the huge soundstages on the property, and others are crammed into temporary tent structures (basically steel frames with vinyl stretched over them). You wait in line and then work your way through the maze, experiencing the gory props and jumping when a scareactor leaps out at you. Take my advice and shell out for the Express Pass. The wait for Walking Dead got to two hours Friday night, and as fun as it was, it was not worth two hours in line (we got an "R.I.P. Tour" that skipped the lines entirely).
These mazes vary in their effectiveness based both on the maze itself and on your timing as you move through it. The Dracula Untold maze was a bit lame, for instance, but the Dollhouse of Doom was incredible. It was filled with seriously disturbing, creepy, terrifying stuff, and every room was packed with detail. That's part of why the scares were so great, because you'd be too focused on the Teddy Ruxpin that had been flayed and disassembled and displayed on the wall to notice the music box ballerina jumping out to scare you.
What do I mean about your own timing affecting the experience? You walk through each maze at a fairly brisk pace, ushered along by attendants inside. If the timing was just off, you'd spend the whole time watching the 3 people ahead of you get scared, then walking through empty rooms as the scareactors reset in their hiding places. This happened once or twice. But when you hit the sweet spot (and you could kind of influence this by trying to walk at a different pace), the experience was great. My second time through the AVP maze I hit all the scares, and this maze features very authentic Aliens controlled by puppeteers, not actors in costumes. When a xenomorph bursts through the wall at you, gleaming in the flickering strobe lights, the inner mouth extending toward your face, it's both awesome and scary. And then you notice the three red dots of a Predator gun scope tracking across the wall toward you…
The Walking Dead maze was also impressive, carrying you through key locations from last season. From the prison to the supermarket with a helicopter stuck in the roof, down the tracks to Terminus, it's twice the size of any other maze and features between 50 and 60 performers. At one point, a skillful combination of actors, dummy zombies, mirrors, and strobe lights turned walking through one room into an absolute nightmare. You turn the corner and for just a second you get a taste of what it would feel like in the seconds before a zombie mob devours you. It looks like there are dozens of them surrounding you.
Universal brought a bunch of horror and theme park press out mainly to focus on two of the HHN areas. First up was the Face Off: In the Flesh zone. This is one of the open areas that guests simply walk through on their way to other parts of the park. It's particularly cool for a few reasons. It features some of the best makeups from SyFy's Face Off (which is a Universal property, so, you know, brand synergy!), some of them remade by the actual Face Off contestants that originally created them. They're also set up specifically to be photo opportunities – you can't take any photos inside the mazes, so this is actually quite cool. The performers pose on their little vignette platforms and will even crouch down to let you take a selfie with them.